Braving the storm
Just as businesses rely on logistics for the movement of goods all over the world, so do relief organisations rely on logistics to bring food, water and other supplies to the people in need during disaster situations.
How I see humanitarian logistics is best described in a quote by Bernard Chomilier, head of IFRC Logistics Division, who says: "You do not know what you need, you do not know where you need it, but you have to get it there in a short amount of time under difficult conditions or people will die."
Humanitarian logistics involves all the processes and systems needed to mobilise people, resources, skills and knowledge to help vulnerable people affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies. It is a programme that requires initial relief to disaster in any part of the world preferably within 48 hours.
Facilitated by a network of pre-positioned inventory positions around the world that will receive, maintain and ship material as required, the material staged at these facilities normally consist of non-food items, such as plastic sheeting, blankets, water filtration systems, vehicles and other relief items.
A humanitarian logistics operation may include planning, procurement, mobilisation of personnel and transport, customs clearance, warehousing, transport, coordination with other organisations and in-country operations, such as local transport, customs clearance and tax exemption procedures. The freight logistics provider must also be prepared to transport refugees in repatriation or relocation efforts.
As in any logistics operation, all involved parties must share information, and like corporate logistics, humanitarian logistics requires leadership by skilled personnel, adequate resources, a reliable delivery infrastructure and close cooperation among all players, such as relief workers, beneficiaries and civil/military authorities. One of the key challenges of humanitarian logistics is that operations often occur without government support in chaotic environments where physical infrastructure has been destroyed.
Transport capacity may be limited or non-existent. In the Iraq and Afghan war, more than ever before, militants directly targeted humanitarian workers, adding a new type of threat. Ultimately, the constant uncertainty of humanitarian logistics calls for improvisation and creative problem solving qualities that if practiced by experienced professionals, will be helpful in some situations.
For many years, corporate logisticians have been developing and refining strategies and technologies for optimising global supply chains. Unfortunately, this expertise has not trickled down to humanitarian relief organisations, many of which suffer from poorly defined manual processes, insufficient funding, fragmented technology, high employee turnover rates and a lack of learning.
Moreover, because emergencies are unexpected occurrences, relief organisations must plan for every contingency and be ready to act at a moment's notice. In this respect, humanitarian logistics is much more demanding and uncertain than corporate logistics, which affords more time for planning and strategising. One way to compensate for the last-minute nature of the work is to warehouse food and other supplies in locations around the world so that it is closer to potential areas of conflict.
The private sector clearly has the expertise and ability to serve humanitarian relief organisations in a new way. Yet, these organisations have often been afraid of the private sector, imagining that it exists only to make money. By thinking this way, humanitarian organisations have at times inflicted unnecessary problems and costs on themselves. The barriers must now come down. When humanitarian and corporate logisticians can work together to share best practices, they will be better able to use worldclass logistics principles to assist those who are suffering.
Issa Baluch is chairman and CEO of Swift Freight International and past president of FIATA. He is the author of Transport Logistics, Past, Present and Predictions (www.transportlogistics.com)